One of the benefits of living in Florida is being within easy driving distance of beautiful, wild places. But some of these places may be getting too much attention and love, and human activity has to be carefully controlled.
Big Cypress National Preserve, the 566,000-acre swamp between Fort Lauderdale/Miami and Naples, is one such place. While this treasure is home to many common animals such as turkey and whitetail deer, the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker and the Florida panther find tenuous protection there. The panther is of greatest concern to environmentalists.
The major problem in Big Cypress is the intense use of the off-road vehicle, or ORV, by sportsmen, especially hunters, and other outdoor enthusiasts.
Use of the ORV, always a contentious issue, is the subject of a lawsuit the National Parks Conservation Association, a nonprofit watchdog group, filed recently against the National Park Service. The suit argues that, among other abuses, the National Park Service used faulty science and ignored federal law to approve a management plan that would give swamp buggies use of 130 miles of new trails in a quadrant of the preserve called Addition Lands.
"Off-road vehicles have long been recognized to have significant adverse impacts on natural areas," said John Adornato, NPCA Sun Coast regional director in Hollywood, in a telephone interview.
In 2000, he said, the National Park Service documented that ORV's had created ruts as deep as 2 feet in Big Cypress, affecting surface water flow into Everglades National Park, altering the composition and distribution of plant species and dramatically reducing the hunting and mating opportunities of animals, especially the panther.
"The National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service have the responsibility to ensure not just the protection of the panther, as well as its prey, but also to ensure that the species recovers from its endangered status," Adornato wrote in an e-mail message. "Conflicts between utilizing ORVs and hunting versus the protection of panther habitat and prey are to be addressed by the planning processes of the park service.
"Specifically, the park service must abide by its management policies, as amended in 2006, which specifically state that when conservation and recreation come into conflict, conservation predominates. The decision to eliminate 70,000 acres of wilderness from the Addition Lands of the preserve in favor of 130 miles of ORV trails is in direct contrast to those management policies."
Adornato suggested that the National Park Service may have violated federal law, or at least the spirit of federal law, when the agency relied on an off-road vehicle advisory committee to make recommendations about the management of ORVs in the preserve and is now turning to that committee to help implement the ORV plan.
"Under federal law, when an agency uses an advisory committee to help it make decisions, the committee must have a fair balance of people with competing interests and viewpoints," he said. "The preserve has relied on recommendations by a committee lacking true balance and dominated by ORV users and their supporters."
"Hunters and other swamp buggy and ATV users deserve a place at the table when new trails are being considered. However, this committee has functioned with a majority of such people. … The National Parks Conservation Association is asking the court to enjoin this committee from further operations until it has been recomposed in a fair and balanced way."
Adornato said he does not believe that anyone wants to intentionally harm Big Cypress. Most people love the swamp, he said. The NPCA simply wants the National Park Service to use good science and the advice of a panel of residents with competing interests when determining where new ORV use should be allowed.
"Big Cypress National Preserve is a national treasure for all Americans and was created to preserve and protect sensitive lands," he said. "Congress provided that limited hunting could be permitted, with restrictions determined by the park service, and there are already significant trails for hunters and other ORV users in the original preserve."